by Raki Jordan
Harlem’s streets are never dull. There’s the constant sound of scattering rats and swerving cars and car horns and babbling talking tongues, and music blaring beats from the windows hovering over your head. And there’s always that old man—that old mule, dressed in army attire, a black leather beret, with a salt & pepper beard covering half of his face. He’s living twelve lifetimes and reciting every single one of them. He contributes to the sounds of the city’s streets. He’s the corner store’s podcast, live commentary and talk-show blues: sitting on kitchen chairs, chained up to the nearest tree during the day, corroded by Earth’s elements. The old man spends his days catching shade beneath trees near bodegas, dangling cigarettes, Colt 45s and his wooden cane between his fingers. He sits between West 144th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, antagonizing youngins he watched grow up with his bickering wisdom.
“You see, I been done did, wha’ you never did, youngin’. Way before you was swimmin’ in yah daddy’s ballsac’ boy. I bare wounds as ol’ as your mother’s mother. Ask your grandma, boy. She kno’ who I be. I was tha’ smooth talkin’ throat bandit. I spoke saxophone tunes to wo’man back in ma days. You probably ma grandchild.” The old man said. “Oh yea boy. I fought in two wars an’ seen death shake his behin’ in ma face wearin’ ah leatha’ pink thong!” He laughed out loud, banging his cane on the floor.
“Aye, mane, calm down,” the young man said. “You stay botha’ing me, every single day. You know you ain’t fought in no war. You just walk around witha Dollar Tree milla’tary badge and ah thrift store army jacket!”
“I kno’ you blind now boy. This badge tha’ pierced on ma chest is from Viah’nam!” The old man responded back, “Check it out, playa.”
“I’m good, mane. I can see da plastic from here. Now if you excuse me, I have places to go and I only came here foe ah Arizona.” He started to walk towards the curb, zipping down his red bubble coat from Nike.
Pigeon, dressed in his usual black cargo pants and leather coat he had since the 70s, stood in front of the Bodega making an owww sound in response to the young man’s diss. “Damn, Mule. You gon’ let tha’ boy disrespeck you like tha’?” Pigeon said, waving around a bottle wrapped in a brown bag. “You don’ lost yah touch. You smell tha’?!” Pigeon yelled out, “You have to smell it!” Pigeon made a loud sniffing noise, drawing out the sound to exaggerate the action, “I smell pu—”
“You don’t smell shit, Pigeon!” The old man snapped. “Al’way try’na see ah fight between us.” He turned to the boy. “Ana’ways, you should respeck ah war hero, boy”
“Who me?” The young man said, stopping to dig in his right pants pocket to use his phone.
“Yes, you! I fough’ ova’seas twice!” He thrown his two fingers in the air, “Twice dammit!”
“Okay. . . What tha’ have to do with me?”
“Everythang.” The old man glanced down at the bulge sticking from the young man’s shirt, it was something tucked tightly in his jeans. “You should sah’loot me when yah see me. Give me respeck!”
“Respeck? Oh nah, son. He’s buggin.'” The Young man laughed out, “I ain’t givin’ you shit but’ah hot five. Maybe ah pat on the back if da day nice.” He proceeded to type on his phone screen for a short moment. “But respeck? Nah. I give if it is received.” “In My Feelings” by Drake began to blast above their heads from the apartment window above the bodega.
“See this is wha’ wrong with you young bulls today,” The Old man said, “Y’all all strength an’ rage, but lack respeck fo’ da eldas.”
“But wha’ tha’ have to do with respeck?”
“Back’n ma days, we showed eldas respeck, even if they curse our name an’ spit on us!” the Old man said. “An’ we—”
“Wait! Spit on y’all? Ha! I be damn if—”
“Yes! Spit. Especially by da folks tha’ still thought it was Jim Crow. An’ you kno’ wha’ we did?” the Old Man asked, leaning forward, lifting his right eyebrow up.
“Nothin’!” the old man snapped. “We smile and said hav’a good day ma’am or sir, an’ nothin’ else.” He waved his hands in a horizontal chopping motion, like a referee shouting safe at a baseball game.
“Oh no no no. This ain’t da 1960s, we different now. Eldas are human just like us young people, an’ if they caint respeck us like human beings then they would be treated how they treat us.”
“I blame da mothas’ and fathas’” The old man spat on the floor beside himself.
“An’ I blame da eldas. Now I gotta go, mane, you can botha’ me tomar’row.”
“Wait now boy, ain’t you gonna tell me to hav’ah nice day?”
“Ain’t you gonna tell me! You done lived yah days, let me live mines.” The sounds of police sirens echoed from two blocks down, following the sounds of ambulances and Drake’s voice blasting from the windows above.
“Boy if ma knees was’it bang up, wooo child, I whoop yah behind like yah motha shoulda!”
“Yea, yea, yea.”
“I tellin’ yah I would.” The old man took a sip from his Colt 45. “I tellin’ yah boy. I tellin yah.”
The old man couldn’t help but to think about the bulge sticking out from the young man’s shirt. The shape of it looked like an L. He stared sourly as the young man proceeded to walk across the street. He thought of the kind of outfit the young man was wearing. Ripped jeans, he thought, wha’ kind of man wear ripped jeans? In ma day, you would’nit catch tha’ type of clothing on ah fella. We was men. Soldiers. We fought in tha war an’ came on home, muddy boots an’ all, just to fight ah nu’tha war. Then he thought about the bulge, what is that bulge? It caint be ah gun, his mama ain’t gon’ let him have ah gun in tha house.
He slammed down his homemade cane and let off a huffing sound. “Aye, you dustee basta’ why you ain’t bac’ me up?”
“Listen, mule mane, I ain’t gettin’ involve in no argumen’ with you an’ tha’ young fella,” Pigeon said. “Besides, y’all al’ways go at it.”
“Man, you ain’t worth two cents to ah dime, you kno’ tha’ right?”
“Aye, I sip to tha,’” Pigeon said, sipping loudly from his bottle. “Aye, baby! We still on foe dominoes tonight?” Tim yelled out from across the street towards Pigeon, “You damn right! I wan’ ma money back!” Pigeon shouted back.
The old man kept thinking about the bulge sticking from the young man’s shirt, and knew he had to do something. He threw down his Colt 45 and the can rattle loudly, rolling on the concrete. He yelled out from across the street, “Aye, boy!” He limped quickly off the pavement, maneuvering swiftly like he was back in the forest of Vietnam.
“Damn, son. Wha’ you want now? I caint even walk across da street without you stoppin’ me,” the young boy said, still walking, never breaking rhythm in his steps.
“I deman’ respeck! An’ if yah momma did’nit teach yah, I will!” The old man made a stiff hop on the elevated pavement across the street, catching his balance with his cane. His jagged knee isn’t what it used to be, but he’d be damned if he’ll let that stop him from installing respect in the young man’s mind.
“Respeck fo’ what?” The young man stopped walking and turned around. “You’s drunk boy, you needa go somewhere,” waving his hand in the air, shooing the old man away.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere boy. You need to listen to me. Maybe then yah be ah man. ‘Cause I see no man toll’ you how too! I fough’ in the war against ma own will an’ I ain’t complain ’bout it, try runnin’ away from it, or carried ma pride in’ah gun. Why? ‘Cause ra’sponsibility conquers stupidity, an’ I ain’t no fool now boy.” Now, the old man and the young boy stood face to face. The old man’s back was slightly hunched, causing his height of six feet to decrease. As for the young man, his bones were still healthy, full with youth. It looks like he was hovering over the old man, but they are the same height. “And I ain’t drunk! I had one can of beer, but tha’ nun of your concer’ now is it?” He paused. “No it ain’t.”
Pigeon yelled from across the street, “Mule, mane, leave tha’ boy ‘lone. He ain’t try’na hea’ wha’ you givin’ him. Let him be.”
“Yea, leave me be or get yah point across old man. Why you botherin’ me more than usual?” A couple of kids ran towards them. One kid’s basketball rolled towards the young man’s feet, and he kicked it back towards them. It rolled between the old man’s legs and into the street. “Dang, you could’da picked it up,” one of the kids said, while they all ran for the ball.
The old man stepped closer to the young man, “I see ah’lot of myself in you, besides da tight clothin’ you got on.” He zipped up his camouflage jacket, the cold crisp air was starting to get to him.
“Tha’ funny, ’cause I don’t see myself. Good day man, I got things to do, business to handle.”
“Boy, you have no business to handle. None at all. Just stay h’air an’ talk to me ’bout how to be ah’ man.” The old man started to feel desperate. He wanted to keep this young bull from going.
“I al’ready am, playa. Peace.” The young boy walked off, cracking open his Arizona bottle and taking a sip from it. He turned back one last time and waved at the old man. “And ma mama said hi!”
“Tell Carol she raised ah bastar’ son!” The old man yelled back, standing with his left hand loosely gripping his cane. The young man’s group of friends was waiting for him at the corner. Their loud greetings of AYO’s echoed throughout the street. Making the old man suck his teeth in disappointment and annoyance.
You caint save all em, The old man thought, Got dammit. At lease’ I tried. I tried an’ tha’ all tha’ mat’tas. This new generation is killin’ em ownselves. Why. . . Why? ‘Cause deer no one to teach em how to be ah man! Geezus, I tried, got dammit. I tried. The old man took a cigarette out from his left jacket pocket. He put the cigarette in his mouth and then took out his lighter he had found on the floor earlier that day; he spat on the floor, then covered the cigarette from the wind and lit it. He took a long drag from it and slowly blew it out, still standing in that same spot the young man left him at. He was deeply reflecting on his conversation with the boy; it reminded him of the conversation he had with his father when he was the boy’s age, before he was drafted to the Vietnam war.
The old man limped back across the street, disregarding the car that suddenly stopped, almost hitting him. The driver honked their horn in anger. The old man was tired and drained from a pointless conversation. He sat down on the chair that was chained against the tree. “Mane, why you ain’t help me? Said sumthang, anythang.”
“You caint help, wha’ don’t wan’ to be helped. Tha’ a foolish thang to do. Like whispain’ unda’ ah wata’fall.” Pigeon said to the old man.
Yea, but it woulda been betta if two people was tryna talk to him, than just me, the old man thought. He just stared at his friend, not even saying a word, taking puffs from his cigarette.
“Don’t beat yah’self ova’ yah head. Caint make ah boy ah man, if he neva’ was meant to be.”
“I don’t wan’ to talk to you anymore. I’m goin’ home, you low down dirt’e pigeon bastar’.” The old man got up and flicked the butt of the cigarette on the floor, and then pressed the end of his cane on the burning remains.
“Befoe you go, you old mule. . . Why was you on tha’ boy so hard? You kno’ Carol ain’t raised him wrong.”
The old man turned around, “’Cause. . . He had da look of death on his face. Same face I seen’t in war. Naive. An’ he done had ah gun pokin’ out his tight ass shir’”
“Wait now, you sure he had ah gun?” Pigeon said quickly.
“I sure it was’it ah gun. . . I kno’ guns, but it oughta be. Tha’ young fella probably done got those fake poppa guns. . . you kno’ those plastic joints, with ah. . . da ah. . . orange tips from the corna store.”
“Oh, tha’ ain’t no big deal, you crazy bastar’, all these kids doin’ tha’ now. Make them feel tough.”
“Yea. . . an’ all them kids are gettin’ killed by cops.” The old man started walking. “I tried, I should’da just asked him wha’ tha’ bulge was, but you kno’ kids, they don’t listen.” He took out another cigarette, and waved off to Pigeon.
The next day, broadcasting on the old man’s television screen came crippling words:
Last night, a young man by the name of Jerome Eli Howard Jr had been shot and killed. Police officers had got a call of a suspicious person and later tried to apprehend the suspect, but had mistaken his toy gun for a real one and had opened fire several times. There are investigations being made on the officers involved and they had been suspended, with pay, until further notice. Footage of the ordeal surfaced on the internet causing controversy and outrage. On a more appealing note; a mother cat caring for a puppy? Find out after the break.
The old man sighed, Got dammit.
Raki Jordan is an avid reader, who enjoys writing pieces that’ll encourage thought-provoking interpretations of his works. Jordan is inspired by his everyday life, capturing the often bitter sweetness of his environment and society.